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Title: The Phoenix on the Sword

Author: Robert E. Howard

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Title: The Phoenix on the Sword

Author: Robert E. Howard









Contents



I

II

III

IV

V







I



_"Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank

Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the

Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms

lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars--

Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired

women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry,

Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its

shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and

gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning

supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-

haired, sullen-eyed,sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with

gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones

of the Earth under his sandalled feet." _



Over shadowy spire's and gleaming towers lay the ghostly darkness and

silence that runs before dawn. Into a dim alley, one of a veritable

labyrinth of mysterious winding ways, four masked figures came

hurriedly from a door which a dusky hand furtively opened. They spoke

not but went swiftly into the gloom, cloaks wrapped closely about

them; as silently as the ghosts of murdered men they disappeared in

the darkness. Behind them a sardonic countenance was framed in the

partly opened door; a pair of evil eyes glittered malevolently in the

gloom.



"Go into the night, creatures of the night," a voice mocked. "Oh,

fools, your doom hounds your heels like a blind dog, and you know it

not."  The speaker closed the door and bolted it, then turned and went

up the corridor, candle in hand. He was a somber giant, whose dusky

skin revealed his Stygian blood. He came into an inner chamber, where

a tall, lean man in worn velvet lounged like a great lazy cat on a

silken couch, sipping wine from a huge golden goblet.



"Well, Ascalante," said the Stygian, setting down the candle, "your

dupes have slunk into the streets like rats from their burrows. You

work with strange tools."



"Tools?" replied Ascalante. "Why, they consider _me_ that. For months

now, ever since the Rebel Four summoned me from the southern desert, I

have been living in the very heart of my enemies, hiding by day in

this obscure house, skulking through dark alleys and darker corridors

at night. And I have accomplished what those rebellious nobles could

not. Working through them, and through other agents, many of whom have

never seen my face, I have honeycombed the empire with sedition and

unrest. In short I, working in the shadows, have paved the downfall of

the king who sits throned in the sun. By Mitra, I was a statesman

before I was an outlaw."



"And these dupes who deem themselves your masters?"



"They will continue to think that I serve them, until our present task

is completed. Who are they to match wits with Ascalante? Volmana, the

dwarfish count of Karaban; Gromel, the giant commander of the Black

Legion; Dion, the fat baron of Attalus; Rinaldo, the hare-brained

minstrel. I am the force which has welded together the steel in each,

and by the clay in each, I will crush them when the time comes. But

that lies in the future; tonight the king dies."



"Days ago I saw the imperial squadrons ride from the city," said the

Stygian. "They rode to the frontier which the heathen Picts assail--

thanks to the strong liquor which I've smuggled over the borders to

madden them. Dion's great wealth made that possible. And Volmana made

it possible to dispose of the rest of the imperial troops which

remained in the city. Through his princely kin in Nemedia, it was easy

to persuade King Numa to request the presence of Count Trocero of

Poitain, seneschal of Aquilonia; and of course, to do him honor, he'll

be accompanied by an imperial escort, as well as his own troops, and

Prospero, King Conan's right­hand man. That leaves only the king's

personal bodyguard in the city-beside the Black Legion. Through Gromel

I've corrupted a spendthrift officer of that guard, and bribed him to

lead his men away from the king's door at midnight.



"Then, with sixteen desperate rogues of mine, we enter the palace by a

secret tunnel. After the deed is done, even if the people do not rise

to welcome us, Gromel's Black Legion will be sufficient to hold the

city and the crown."



"And Dion thinks that crown will be given to him?"



"Yes. The fat fool claims it by reason of a trace of royal blood.

Conan makes a bad mistake in letting men live who still boast descent

from the old dynasty, from which he tore the crown of Aquilonia.



"Volmana wishes to be reinstated in royal favor as he was under the

old regime, so that he may lift his poverty-ridden estates to their

former grandeur. Gromel hates Pallantides, commander of the Black

Dragons, and desires the command of the whole army, with all the

stubbornness of the Bossonian. Alone of us all, Rinaldo has no

personal ambition. He sees in Conan a red-handed, rough-footed

barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a civilized land. He

idealizes the king whom Conan killed to get the crown, remembering

only that he occasionally patronized the arts, and forgetting the

evils of his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they

openly sing _The Lament for the King_ in which Rinaldo lauds the

sainted villain and denounces Conan as 'that black-hearted savage from

the abyss.' Conan laughs, but the people snarl."



"Why does he hate Conan?"



"Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just

behind the last corner, or beyond the next. They escape the present in

dreams of the past and future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism,

rising, as he thinks, to overthrow a tyrant and liberate the people.

As for me--well, a few months ago I had lost all ambition but to raid

the caravans for the rest of my life; now old dreams stir. Conan will

die; Dion will mount the throne. Then he, too, will die. One by one,

all who oppose me will die--by fire, or steel, or those deadly wines

you know so well how to brew. Ascalante, king of Aquilonia! How like

you the sound of it?"



The Stygian shrugged his broad shoulders.



"There was a time," he said with unconcealed bitterness, "when I, too,

had my ambitions, beside which yours seem tawdry and childish. To what

a state I have fallen! My old-time peers and rivals would stare indeed

could they see Thoth-amon of the Ring serving as the slave of an

outlander, and an outlaw at that; and aiding in the petty ambitions of

barons and kings!"



"You laid your trust in magic and mummery," answered Ascalante

carelessly. "I trust my wits and my sword."



"Wits and swords are as straws against the wisdom of the Darkness,"

growled the Stygian, his dark eyes flickering with menacing lights and

shadows. "Had I not lost the Ring, our positions might be reversed."



"Nevertheless," answered the outlaw impatiently, "you wear the stripes

of my whip on your back, and are likely to continue to wear them."



"Be not so sure!" the fiendish hatred of the Stygian glittered for an

instant redly in his eyes. "Some day, somehow, I will find the Ring

again, and when I do, by the serpent-fangs of Set, you shall pay-"



The hot-tempered Aquilonian started up and struck him heavily across

the mouth. Thoth reeled back, blood starting from his lips.



"You grow over-bold, dog," growled the outlaw. "Have a care; I am

still your master who knows your dark secret. Go upon the housetops

and shout that Ascalante is in the city plotting against the king--if

you dare."



"I dare not," muttered the Stygian, wiping the blood from his lips.



"No, you do not dare," Ascalante grinned bleakly. "For if I die by

your stealth or treachery, a hermit priest in the southern desert will

know of it, and will break the seal of a manuscript I left in his

hands. And having read, a word will be whispered in Stygia, and a wind

will creep up from the south by midnight. And where will you hide your

head, Thoth-amon?"



The slave shuddered and his dusky face went ashen.



"Enough!" Ascalante changed his tone peremptorily. "I have work for

you. I do not trust Dion. I bade him ride to his country estate and

remain there until the work tonight is done. The fat fool could never

conceal his nervousness before the king today. Ride after him, and if

you do not overtake him on the road, proceed to his estate and remain

with him until we send for him. Don't let him out of your sight. He is

mazed with fear, and might bolt--might even rush to Conan in a panic,

and reveal the whole plot, hoping thus to save his own hide. Go!"



The slave bowed, hiding the hate in his eyes, and did as he was

bidden. Ascalante turned again to his wine. Over the jeweled spires

was rising a dawn crimson as blood.







II



When I was a fighting-man, the kettle-drums they beat,



The room was large and ornate, with rich tapestries on the polished-

panelled walls, deep rugs on the ivory floor, and with the lofty

ceiling adorned with intricate carvings and silver scrollwork. Behind

an ivory, gold-inlaid writing-table sat a man whose broad shoulders

and sun-browned skin seemed out of place among those luxuriant

surroundings. He seemed more a part of the sun and winds and high

places of the outlands. His slightest movement spoke of steel-spring

muscles knit to a keen brain with the co-ordination of a born

fighting-man. There was nothing deliberate or measured about his

actions. Either he was perfectly at rest--still as a bronze statue--or

else he was in motion, not with the jerky quickness of over-tense

nerves, but with a cat-like speed that blurred the sight which tried

to follow him.



His garments were of rich fabric, but simply made. He wore no ring or

ornaments, and his square-cut black mane was confined merely by a

cloth-of-silver band about his head.



Now he laid down the golden stylus with which he had been laboriously

scrawling on waxed papyrus, rested his chin on his fist, and fixed his

smoldering blue eyes enviously on the man who stood before him. This

person was occupied in his own affairs at the moment, for he was

taking up the laces of his gold-chased armor, and abstractedly

whistling--a rather unconventional performance, considering that he

was in the presence of a king.



"Prospero," said the man at the table, "these matters of statecraft

weary me as all the fighting I have done never did."



"All part of the game, Conan," answered the dark-eyed Poitainian. "You

are king--you must play the part."



"I wish I might ride with you to Nemedia," said Conan enviously. "It

seems ages since I had a horse between my knees--but Publius says that

affairs in the city require my presence. Curse him!



"When I overthrew the old dynasty," he continued, speaking with the

easy familiarity which existed only between the Poitainian and

himself, "it was easy enough, though it seemed bitter hard at the

time. Looking back now over the wild path I followed, all those days

of toil, intrigue, slaughter and tribulation seem like a dream.



"I did not dream far enough, Prospero. When King Numedides lay dead at

my feet and I tore the crown from his gory head and set it on my own,

I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. I had prepared myself

to take the crown, not to hold it. In the old free days all I wanted

was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are

straight and my sword is useless.



"When I overthrew Numedides, then I was the Liberator--now they spit

at my shadow. They have put a statue of that swine in the temple of

Mitra, and people go and wail before it, hailing it as the holy effigy

of a saintly monarch who was done to death by a red-handed barbarian.

When I led her armies to victory as a mercenary, Aquilonia overlooked

the fact that I was a foreigner, but now she can not forgive me.



"Now in Mitra's temple there come to burn incense to Numedides'

memory, men whom his hangmen maimed and blinded, men whose sons died

in his dungeons, whose wives and daughters were dragged into his

seraglio. The fickle fools!"



"Rinaldo is largely responsible," answered Prospero, drawing up his

sword-belt another notch. "He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him

in his jester's garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make

rimes for the vultures."



Conan shook his lion head. "No, Prospero, he's beyond my reach. A

great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my

scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose

to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo's songs will

live for ever.



"No, Prospero," the king continued, a somber look of doubt shadowing

his eyes, "there is something hidden, some undercurrent of which we

are not aware. I sense it as in my youth I sensed the tiger hidden in

the tall grass. There is a nameless unrest throughout the kingdom. I

am like a hunter who crouches by his small fire amid the forest, and

hears stealthy feet padding in the darkness, and almost sees the

glimmer of burning eyes. If I could but come to grips with something

tangible, that I could cleave with my sword! I tell you, it's not by

chance that the Picts have of late so fiercely assailed the frontiers,

so that the Bossonians have called for aid to beat them back. I should

have ridden with the troops."



"Publius feared a plot to trap and slay you beyond the frontier,"

replied Prospero, smoothing his silken surcoat over his shining mail,

and admiring his tall lithe figure in a silver mirror. "That's why he

urged you to remain in the city. These doubts are born of your

barbarian instincts. Let the people snarl! The mercenaries are ours,

and the Black Dragons, and every rogue in Poitain swears by you. Your

only danger is assassination, and that's impossible, with men of the

imperial troops guarding you day and night. What are you working at

there?"



"A map," Conan answered with pride. "The maps of the court show well

the countries of south, east and west, but in the north they are vague

and faulty. I am adding the northern lands myself. Here is Cimmeria,

where I was born. And -"



"Asgard and Vanaheim," Prospero scanned the map. "By Mitra, I had

almost believed those countries to have been fabulous."



Conan grinned savagely, involuntarily touching the scars on his dark

face. "You had known otherwise, had you spent your youth on the

northern frontiers of Cimmeria! Asgard lies to the north, and Vanaheim

to the northwest of Cimmeria, and there is continual war along the

borders."



"What manner of men are these northern folk?" asked Prospero.



"Tall and fair and blue-eyed. Their god is Ymir, the frost-giant, and

each tribe has its own king. They are wayward and fierce. They fight

all day and drink ale and roar their wild songs all night."



"Then I think you are like them," laughed Prospero. "You laugh

greatly, drink deep and bellow good songs; though I never saw another

Cimmerian who drank aught but water, or who ever laughed, or ever sang

save to chant dismal dirges."



"Perhaps it's the land they live in," answered the king. "A gloomier

land never was--all of hills, darkly wooded, under skies nearly always

gray, with winds moaning drearily down the valleys."



"Little wonder men grow moody there," quoth Prospero with a shrug of

his shoulders, thinking of the smiling sun-washed plains and blue lazy

rivers of Poitain, Aquilonia's southernmost province.



"They have no hope here or hereafter," answered Conan. "Their gods are

Crom and his dark race, who rule over a sunless place of everlasting

mist, which is the world of the dead. Mitra! The ways of the Æsir

were more to my liking."



"Well," grinned Prospero, "the dark hills of Cimmeria are far behind

you. And now I go. I'll quaff a goblet of white Nemedian wine for you

at Numa's court."



"Good," grunted the king, "but kiss Numa's dancing-girls for yourself

only, lest you involve the states!"



His gusty laughter followed Prospero out of the chamber.







III



Under the caverned pyramids great Set coils asleep;



The sun was setting, etching the green and hazy blue of the forest in

brief gold. The waning beams glinted on the thick golden chain which

Dion of Attalus twisted continually in his pudgy hand as he sat in the

flaming riot of blossoms and flower­trees which was his garden. He

shifted his fat body on his marble seat and glanced furtively about,

as if in quest of a lurking enemy. He sat within a circular grove of

slender trees, whose interlapping branches cast a thick shade over

him. Near at hand a fountain tinkled silverly, and other unseen

fountains in various parts of the great garden whispered an

everlasting symphony.



Dion was alone except for the great dusky figure which lounged on a

marble bench close at hand, watching the baron with deep somber eyes.

Dion gave little thought to Thoth-amon. He vaguely knew that he was a

slave in whom Ascalante reposed much trust, but like so many rich men,

Dion paid scant heed to men below his own station in life.



"You need not be so nervous," said Thoth. "The plot can not fail."



"Ascalante can make mistakes as well as another," snapped Dion,

sweating at the mere thought of failure.



"Not he," grinned the Stygian savagely, "else I had not been his

slave, but his master. "



"What talk is this?" peevishly returned Dion, with only half a mind on

the conversation.



Thoth-amon's eyes narrowed. For all his iron-self-control, he was near

bursting with long pent-up shame, hate and rage, ready to take any

sort of a desperate chance. What he did not reckon on was the fact

that Dion saw him, not as a human being with a brain and a wit, but

simply a slave, and as such, a creature beneath notice.



"Listen to me," said Thoth. "You will be king. But you little know the

mind of Ascalante. You can not trust him, once Conan is slain. I can

help you. If you will protect me when you come to power, I will aid

you.



"Listen, my lord. I was a great sorcerer in the south. Men spoke of

Thoth­amon as they spoke of Rammon. King Ctesphon of Stygia gave me

great honor, casting down the magicians from the high places to exalt

me above them. They hated me, but they feared me, for I controlled

beings from outside which came at my call and did my bidding. By Set,

mine enemy knew not the hour when he might awake at midnight to feel

the taloned fingers of a nameless horror at his throat! I did dark and

terrible magic with the Serpent Ring of Set, which I found in a

nighted tomb a league beneath the earth, forgotten before the first

man crawled out of the slimy sea.



"But a thief stole the Ring and my power was broken. The magicians

rose up to slay me, and I fled. Disguised as a camel-driver, I was

travelling in a caravan in the land of Koth, when Ascalante's reavers

fell upon us. All in the caravan were slain except myself; I saved my

life by revealing my identity to Ascalante and swearing to serve him.

Bitter has been that bondage!



"To hold me fast, he wrote of me in a manuscript, and sealed it and

gave it into the hands of a hermit who dwells on the southern borders

of Koth. I dare not strike a dagger into him while he sleeps, or

betray him to his enemies, for then the hermit would open the

manuscript and read--thus Ascalante instructed him. And he would speak

a word in Stygia--"



Again Thoth shuddered and an ashen hue tinged his dusky skin.



"Men knew me not in Aquilonia," he said. "But should my enemies in

Stygia learn my whereabouts, not the width of half a world between us

would suffice to save me from such a doom as would blast the soul of a

bronze statue. Only a king with castles and hosts of swordsmen could

protect me. So I have told you my secret, and urge that you make a

pact with me. I can aid you with my wisdom, and you can protect me.

And some day I will find the Ring--"



"Ring? Ring?" Thoth had underestimated the man's utter egoism. Dion

had not even been listening to the slave's words, so completely

engrossed was he in his own thoughts, but the final word stirred a

ripple in his self-centeredness.



"Ring?" he repeated. "That makes me remember--my ring of good fortune.

I had it from a Shemitish thief who swore he stole it from a wizard

far to the south, and that it would bring me luck. I paid him enough,

Mitra knows. By the gods, I need all the luck I can have, what with

Volmana and Ascalante dragging me into their bloody plots--I'll see to

the ring."



Thoth sprang up, blood mounting darkly to his face, while his eyes

flamed with the stunned fury of a man who suddenly realizes the full

depths of a fool's swinish stupidity. Dion never heeded him. Lifting a

secret lid in the marble seat, he fumbled for a moment among a heap of

gewgaws of various kinds--barbaric charms, bits of bones, pieces of

tawdry jewelry--luck-pieces and conjures which the man's superstitious

nature had prompted him to collect.



"Ah, here it is!" He triumphantly lifted a ring of curious make. It

was of a metal like copper, and was made in the form of a scaled

serpent, coiled in three loops, with its tail in its mouth. Its eyes

were yellow gems which glittered balefully. Thoth-amon cried out as if

he had been struck, and Dion wheeled and gaped, his face suddenly

bloodless. The slave's eyes were blazing, his mouth wide, his huge

dusky hands outstretched like talons.



"The Ring! By Set! The Ring!" he shrieked. "My Ring--stolen from me--"

Steel glittered in the Stygian's hand and with a heave of his great

dusky shoulders he drove the dagger into the baron's fat body. Dion's

high thin squeal broke in a strangled gurgle and his whole flabby

frame collapsed like melted butter. A fool to the end, he died in mad

terror, not knowing why. Flinging aside the crumpled corpse, already

forgetful of it, Thoth grasped the ring in both hands, his dark eyes

blazing with a fearful avidness.



"My Ring!" he whispered in terrible exultation. "My power!"



How long he crouched over the baleful thing, motionless as a statue,

drinking the evil aura of it into his dark soul, not even the Stygian

knew. When he shook himself from his revery and drew back his mind

from the nighted abysses where it had been questing, the moon was

rising, casting long shadows across the smooth marble back of the

garden-seat, at the foot of which sprawled the darker shadow which had

been the lord of Attalus.



"No more, Ascalante, no more!" whispered the Stygian, and his eyes

burned red as a vampire's in the gloom. Stooping, he cupped a handful

of congealing blood from the sluggish pool in which his victim

sprawled, and rubbed it in the copper serpent's eyes until the yellow

sparks were covered by a crimson mask.



"Blind your eyes, mystic serpent," he chanted in a blood-freezing

whisper. "Blind your eyes to the moonlight and open them on darker

gulfs! What do you see, oh serpent of Set? Whom do you call from the

gulfs of the Night? Whose shadow falls on the waning Light? Call him

to me, oh serpent of Set!"



Stroking the scales with a peculiar circular motion of his fingers, a

motion which always carried the fingers back to their starting place,

his voice sank still lower as he whispered dark names and grisly

incantations forgotten the world over save in the grim hinterlands of

dark Stygia, where monstrous shapes move in the dusk of the tombs.



There was a movement in the air about him, such a swirl as is made in

water when some creature rises to the surface. A nameless, freezing

wind blew on him briefly, as if from an opened Door. Thoth felt a

presence at his back, but he did not look about. He kept his eyes

fixed on the moonlit space of marble, on which a tenuous shadow

hovered. As he continued his whispered incantations, this shadow grew

in size and clarity, until it stood out distinct and horrific. Its

outline was not unlike that of a gigantic baboon, but no such baboon

ever walked the earth, not even in Stygia. Still Thoth did not look,

but drawing from his girdle a sandal of his master--always carried in

the dim hope that he might be able to put it to such use--he cast it

behind him.



"Know it well, slave of the Ring!" he exclaimed. "Find him who wore it

and destroy him! Look into his eyes and blast his soul, before you

tear out his throat! Kill him! Aye," in a blind burst of passion, "and

all with him!"



Etched on the moonlit wall Thoth saw the horror lower its misshapen

head and take the scent like some hideous hound. Then the grisly head

was thrown back and the thing wheeled and was gone like a wind through

the trees. The Stygian flung up his arms in maddened exultation, and

his teeth and eyes gleamed in the moonlight.



A soldier on guard without the walls yelled in startled horror as a

great loping black shadow with flaming eyes cleared the wall and swept

by him with a swirling rush of wind. But it was gone so swiftly that

the bewildered warrior was left wondering whether it had been a dream

or a hallucination.







IV



When the world was young and men were weak, and the fiends of the



I strove with Set by fire and steel and the juice of the upas-tree;



Alone in the great sleeping-chamber with its high golden dome King

Conan slumbered and dreamed. Through swirling gray mists he heard a

curious call, faint and far, and though he did not understand it, it

seemed not within his power to ignore it. Sword in hand he went

through the gray mist, as a man might walk through clouds, and the

voice grew more distinct as he proceeded until he understood the word

it spoke--it was his own name that was being called across the gulfs

of Space or Time.



Now the mists grew lighter and he saw that he was in a great dark

corridor that seemed to be cut in solid black stone. It was unlighted,

but by some magic he could see plainly. The floor, ceiling and walls

were highly polished and gleamed dull, and they were carved with the

figures of ancient heroes and half-forgotten gods. He shuddered to see

the vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones, and he knew

somehow that mortal feet had not traversed the corridor for centuries.



He came upon a wide stair carved in the solid rock, and the sides of

the shaft were adorned with esoteric symbols so ancient and horrific

that King Conan's skin crawled. The steps were carven each with the

abhorrent figure of the Old Serpent, Set, so that at each step he

planted his heel on the head of the Snake, as it was intended from old

times. But he was none the less at ease for all that.



But the voice called him on, and at last, in darkness that would have

been impenetrable to his material eyes, he came into a strange crypt,

and saw a vague white-bearded figure sitting on a tomb. Conan's hair

rose up and he grasped his sword, but the figure spoke in sepulchral

tones.



"Oh man, do you know me?"



"Not I, by Crom!" swore the king.



"Man," said the ancient, "I am Epemitreus."



"But Epemitreus the Sage has been dead for fifteen hundred years!"

stammered Conan.



"Harken!" spoke the other commandingly. "As a pebble cast into a dark

lake sends ripples to the further shores, happenings in the Unseen

world have broken like waves on my slumber. I have marked you well,

Conan of Cimmeria, and the stamp of mighty happenings and great deeds

is upon you. But dooms are loose in the land, against which your sword

can not aid you."



"You speak in riddles," said Conan uneasily. "Let me see my foe and

I'll cleave his skull to the teeth."



"Loose your barbarian fury against your foes of flesh and blood,"

answered the ancient. "It is not against men I must shield you. There

are dark worlds barely guessed by man, wherein formless monsters

stalk--fiends which may be drawn from the Outer Voids to take material

shape and rend and devour at the bidding of evil magicians. There is a

serpent in your house, oh king--an adder in your kingdom, come up from

Stygia, with the dark wisdom of the shadows in his murky soul. As a

sleeping man dreams of the serpent which crawls near him, I have felt

the foul presence of Set's neophyte. He is drunk with terrible power,

and the blows he strikes at his enemy may well bring down the kingdom.

I have called you to me, to give you a weapon against him and his

hell-hound pack."



"But why?" bewilderedly asked Conan. "Men say you sleep in the black

heart of Golamira, whence you send forth your ghost on unseen wings to

aid Aquilonia in times of need, but I--I am an outlander and a

barbarian."



"Peace!" the ghostly tones reverberated through the great shadowy

cavern. "Your destiny is one with Aquilonia. Gigantic happenings are

forming in the web and the womb of Fate, and a blood-mad sorcerer

shall not stand in the path of imperial destiny. Ages ago Set coiled

about the world like a python about its prey. All my life, which was

as the lives of three common men, I fought him. I drove him into the

shadows of the mysterious south, but in dark Stygia men still worship

him who to us is the arch-demon. As I fought Set, I fight his

worshippers and his votaries and his acolytes. Hold out your sword."



Wondering, Conan did so, and on the great blade, close to the heavy

silver guard, the ancient traced with a bony finger a strange symbol

that glowed like white fire in the shadows. And on the instant crypt,

tomb and ancient vanished, and Conan, bewildered, sprang from his

couch in the great golden-domed chamber. And as he stood, bewildered

at the strangeness of his dream, he realized that he was gripping his

sword in his hand. And his hair prickled at the nape of his neck, for

on the broad blade was carven a symbol- the outline of a phœnix. And

he remembered that on the tomb in the crypt he had seen what he had

thought to be a similar figure, carven of stone. Now he wondered if it

had been but a stone figure, and his skin crawled at the strangeness

of it all.



Then as he stood, a stealthy sound in the corridor outside brought him

to life, and without stopping to investigate, he began to don his

armor; again he was the barbarian, suspicious and alert as a gray wolf

at bay.







V



What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?



Through the silence which shrouded the corridor of the royal palace

stole twenty furtive figures. Their stealthy feet, bare or cased in

soft leather, made no sound either on thick carpet or bare marble

tile. The torches which stood in niches along the halls gleamed red on

dagger, sword and keen-edged ax.



"Easy all!" hissed Ascalante. "Stop that cursed loud breathing,

whoever it is! The officer of the night-guard has removed most of the

sentries from these halls and made the rest drunk, but we must be

careful, just the same. Back! Here come the guard!"



They crowded back behind a cluster of carven pillars, and almost

immediately ten giants in black armor swung by at a measured pace.

Their faces showed doubt as they glanced at the officer who was

leading them away from their post of duty. This officer was rather

pale; as the guard passed the hiding-places of the conspirators, he

was seen to wipe the sweat from his brow with a shaky hand. He was

young, and this betrayal of a king did not come easy to him. He

mentally cursed the vain-glorious extravagance which had put him in

debt to the money-lenders and made him a pawn of scheming politicians.



The guardsmen clanked by and disappeared up the corridor.



"Good!" grinned Ascalante. "Conan sleeps unguarded. Haste! If they

catch us killing him, we're undone--but few men will espouse the cause

of a dead king."



"Aye, haste!" cried Rinaldo, his blue eyes matching the gleam of the

sword he swung above his head. "My blade is thirsty! I hear the

gathering of the vultures! On!"



They hurried down the corridor with reckless speed and stopped before

a gilded door which bore the royal dragon symbol of Aquilonia.



"Gromel!" snapped Ascalante. "Break me this door open!"



The giant drew a deep breath and launched his mighty frame against the

panels, which groaned and bent at the impact. Again he crouched and

plunged. With a snapping of bolts and a rending crash of wood, the

door splintered and burst inward.



"In!" roared Ascalante, on fire with the spirit of the deed.



"In!" yelled Rinaldo. "Death to the tyrant!"



They stopped short. Conan faced them, not a naked man roused mazed and

unarmed out of deep sleep to be butchered like a sheep, but a

barbarian wide-awake and at bay, partly armored, and with his long

sword in his hand.







"In, rogues!" yelled the outlaw. "He is one to twenty and he has no

helmet!"



True; there had been lack of time to don the heavy plumed casque, or

to lace in place the side-plates of the cuirass, nor was there now

time to snatch the great shield from the wall. Still, Conan was better

protected than any of his foes except Volmana and Gromel, who were in

full armor.



The king glared, puzzled as to their identity. Ascalante he did not

know; he could not see through the closed vizors of the armored

conspirators, and Rinaldo had pulled his slouch cap down above his

eyes. But there was no time for surmise. With a yell that rang to the

roof, the killers flooded into the room, Gromel first. He came like a

charging bull, head down, sword low for the disembowelling thrust.

Conan sprang to meet him, and all his tigerish strength went into the

arm that swung the sword. In a whistling arc the great blade flashed

through the air and crashed on the Bossonian's helmet. Blade and

casque shivered together and Gromel rolled lifeless on the floor.

Conan bounded back, still gripping the broken hilt.



"Gromel!" he spat, his eyes blazing in amazement, as the shattered

helmet disclosed the shattered head; then the rest of the pack were

upon him. A dagger point raked along his ribs between breastplate and

backplate, a sword-edge flashed before his eyes. He flung aside the

dagger-wielder with his left arm, and smashed his broken hilt like a

cestus into the swordsman's temple. The man's brains spattered in his

face.



"Watch the door, five of you!" screamed Ascalante, dancing about the

edge of the singing steel whirlpool, for he feared that Conan might

smash through their midst and escape. The rogues drew back

momentarily, as their leader seized several and thrust them toward the

single door, and in that brief respite Conan leaped to the wall and

tore therefrom an ancient battle-ax which, untouched by time, had hung

there for half a century.



With his back to the wall he faced the closing ring for a flashing

instant, then leaped into the thick of them. He was no defensive

fighter; even in the teeth of overwhelming odds he always carried the

war to the enemy. Any other man would have already died there, and

Conan himself did not hope to survive, but he did ferociously wish to

inflict as much damage as he could before he fell. His barbaric soul

was ablaze, and the chants of old heroes were singing in his ears.



As he sprang from the wall his ax dropped an outlaw with a severed

shoulder, and the terrible back-hand return crushed the skull of

another. Swords whined venomously about him, but death passed him by

breathless margins. The Cimmerian moved in, a blur of blinding speed.

He was like a tiger among baboons as he leaped, side-stepped and spun,

offering an ever-moving target, while his ax wove a shining wheel of

death about him.



For a brief space the assassins crowded him fiercely, raining blows

blindly and hampered by their own numbers; then they gave back

suddenly--two corpses on the floor gave mute evidence of the king's

fury, though Conan himself was bleeding from wounds on arm, neck and

legs.



"Knaves!" screamed Rinaldo, dashing off his feathered cap, his wild

eyes glaring. "Do ye shrink from the combat? Shall the despot live?

Out on it!"



He rushed in, hacking madly, but Conan, recognizing him, shattered his

sword with a short terrific chop and with a powerful push of his open

hand sent him reeling to the floor. The king took Ascalante's point in

his left arm, and the outlaw barely saved his life by ducking and

springing backward from the swinging ax. Again the wolves swirled in

and Conan's ax sang and crushed. A hairy rascal stooped beneath its

stroke and dived at the king's legs, but after wrestling for a brief

instant at what seemed a solid iron tower, glanced up in time to see

the ax falling, but not in time to avoid it. In the interim one of his

comrades lifted a broadsword with both hands and hewed through the

king's left shoulder-plate, wounding the shoulder beneath. In an

instant Conan's cuirass was full of blood.



Volmana, flinging the attackers right and left in his savage

impatience, came plowing through and hacked murderously at Conan's

unprotected head. The king ducked deeply and the sword shaved off a

lock of his black hair as it whistled above him. Conan pivoted on his

heel and struck in from the side. The ax crunched through the steel

cuirass and Volmana crumpled with his whole left side caved in.



"Volmana!" gasped Conan breathlessly. "I'll know that dwarf in Hell- "

He straightened to meet the maddened rush of Rinaldo, who charged in

wild and wide open, armed only with a dagger. Conan leaped back,

lifting his ax.



"Rinaldo!" his voice was strident with desperate urgency. "Back! I

would not slay you--"



"Die, tyrant!" screamed the mad minstrel, hurling himself headlong on

the king. Conan delayed the blow he was loth to deliver, until it was

too late. Only when he felt the bite of the steel in his unprotected

side did he strike, in a frenzy of blind desperation.



Rinaldo dropped with his skull shattered, and Conan reeled back

against the wall, blood spurting from between the fingers which

gripped his wound.



"In, now, and slay him!" yelled Ascalante.



Conan put his back against the wall and lifted his ax. He stood like

an image of the unconquerable primordial--legs braced far apart, head

thrust forward, one hand clutching the wall for support, the other

gripping the ax on high, with the great corded muscles standing out in

iron ridges, and his features frozen in a death snarl of fury--his

eyes blazing terribly through the mist of blood which veiled them. The

men faltered--wild, criminal and dissolute though they were, yet they

came of a breed men called civilized, with a civilized background;

here was the barbarian--the natural killer. They shrank back--the

dying tiger could still deal death.



Conan sensed their uncertainty and grinned mirthlessly and

ferociously. "Who dies first?" he mumbled through smashed and bloody

lips.



Ascalante leaped like a wolf, halted almost in midair with incredible

quickness and fell prostrate to avoid the death which was hissing

toward him. He frantically whirled his feet out of the way and rolled

clear as Conan recovered from his missed blow and struck again. This

time the ax sank inches deep into the polished floor close to

Ascalante's revolving legs.



Another misguided desperado chose this instant to charge, followed

half­heartedly by his fellows. He intended killing Conan before the

Cimmerian could wrench his ax from the floor, but his judgment was

faulty. The red ax lurched up and crashed down and a crimson

caricature of a man catapulted back against the legs of the attackers.



At that instant a fearful scream burst from the rogues at the door as

a black misshapen shadow fell across the wall. All but Ascalante

wheeled at that cry, and then, howling like dogs, they burst blindly

through the door in a raving, blaspheming mob, and scattered through

the corridors in screaming flight.



Ascalante did not look toward the door; he had eyes only for the

wounded king. He supposed that the noise of the fray had at last

roused the palace, and that the loyal guards were upon him, though

even in that moment it seemed strange that his hardened rogues should

scream so terribly in their flight. Conan did not look toward the door

because he was watching the outlaw with the burning eyes of a dying

wolf. In this extremity Ascalante's cynical philosophy did not desert

him.



"All seems to be lost, particularly honor," he murmured. "However, the

king is dying on his feet--and -" Whatever other cogitation might have

passed through his mind is not to be known; for, leaving the sentence

uncompleted, he ran lightly at Conan just as the Cimmerian was

perforce employing his ax-arm to wipe the blood from his blinded eyes.



But even as he began his charge, there was a strange rushing in the

air and a heavy weight struck terrifically between his shoulders. He

was dashed headlong and great talons sank agonizingly in his flesh.

Writhing desperately beneath his attacker, he twisted his head about

and stared into the face of Nightmare and lunacy. Upon him crouched a

great black thing which he knew was born in no sane or human world.

Its slavering black fangs were near his throat and the glare of its

yellow eyes shrivelled his limbs as a killing wind shrivels young

corn.



The hideousness of its face transcended mere bestiality. It might have

been the face of an ancient, evil mummy, quickened with demoniac life.

In those abhorrent features the outlaw's dilated eyes seemed to see,

like a shadow in the madness that enveloped him, a faint and terrible

resemblance to the slave Thoth-amon. Then Ascalante's cynical and all-

sufficient philosophy deserted him, and with a ghastly cry he gave up

the ghost before those slavering fangs touched him.



Conan, shaking the blood-drops from his eyes, stared frozen. At first

he thought it was a great black hound which stood above Ascalante's

distorted body; then as his sight cleared he saw that it was neither a

hound nor a baboon.



With a cry that was like an echo of Ascalante's death-shriek, he

reeled away from the wall and met the leaping horror with a cast of

his ax that had behind it all the desperate power of his electrified

nerves. The flying weapon glanced singing from the slanting skull it

should have crushed, and the king was hurled half-way across the

chamber by the impact of the giant body.



The slavering jaws closed on the arm Conan flung up to guard his

throat, but the monster made no effort to secure a death-grip. Over

his mangled arm it glared fiendishly into the king's eyes, in which

there began to be mirrored a likeness of the horror which stared from

the dead eyes of Ascalante. Conan felt his soul shrivel and begin to

be drawn out of his body, to drown in the yellow wells of cosmic

horror which glimmered spectrally in the formless chaos that was

growing about him and engulfing all life and sanity. Those eyes grew

and became gigantic, and in them the Cimmerian glimpsed the reality of

all the abysmal and blasphemous horrors that lurk in the outer

darkness of formless voids and nighted gulfs. He opened his bloody

lips to shriek his hate and loathing, but only a dry rattle burst from

his throat.



But the horror that paralyzed and destroyed Ascalante roused in the

Cimmerian a frenzied fury akin to madness. With a volcanic wrench of

his whole body he plunged backward, heedless of the agony of his torn

arm, dragging the monster bodily with him. And his outflung hand

struck something his dazed fighting-brain recognized as the hilt of

his broken sword. Instinctively he gripped it and struck with all the

power of nerve and thew, as a man stabs with a dagger. The broken

blade sank deep and Conan's arm was released as the abhorrent mouth

gaped as in agony. The king was hurled violently aside, and lifting

himself on one hand he saw, as one mazed, the terrible convulsions of

the monster from which thick blood was gushing through the great wound

his broken blade had torn. And as he watched, its struggles ceased and

it lay jerking spasmodically, staring upward with its grisly dead

eyes. Conan blinked and shook the blood from his own eyes; it seemed

to him that the thing was melting and disintegrating into a slimy

unstable mass.



Then a medley of voices reached his ears, and the room was thronged

with the finally roused people of the court--knights, peers, ladies,

men-at-arms, councillors--all babbling and shouting and getting in one

another's way. The Black Dragons were on hand, wild with rage,

swearing and ruffling, with their hands on their hilts and foreign

oaths in their teeth. Of the young officer of the door-guard nothing

was seen, nor was he found then or later, though earnestly sought

after.







"The guard is here, you old fool!" cavalierly snapped Pallantides,

commander of the Black Dragons, forgetting Publius' rank in the stress

of the moment. "Best stop your caterwauling and aid us to bind the

king's wounds. He's like to bleed to death."



"Yes, yes!" cried Publius, who was a man of plans rather than action.

"We must bind his wounds. Send for every leech of the court! Oh, my

lord, what a black shame on the city! Are you entirely slain?"



"Wine!" gasped the king from the couch where they had laid him. They

put a goblet to his bloody lips and he drank like a man half dead of

thirst.



"Good!" he grunted, falling back. "Slaying is cursed dry work."



They had stanched the flow of blood, and the innate vitality of the

barbarian was asserting itself.



"See first to the dagger-wound in my side," he bade the court

physicians.



"Rinaldo wrote me a deathly song there, and keen was the stylus."



"We should have hanged him long ago," gibbered Publius. "No good can

come of poets--who is this?"



He nervously touched Ascalante's body with his sandalled toe.



"By Mitra!" ejaculated the commander. "It is Ascalante, once count of

Thune! What devil's work brought him up from his desert haunts?"



"But why does he stare so?" whispered Publius, drawing away, his own

eyes wide and a peculiar prickling among the short hairs at the back

of his fat neck. The others fell silent as they gazed at the dead

outlaw.



"Had you seen what he and I saw," growled the king, sitting up despite

the protests of the leeches, "you had not wondered. Blast your own

gaze by looking at--" He stopped short, his mouth gaping, his finger

pointing fruitlessly. Where the monster had died, only the bare floor

met his eyes.



"Crom!" he swore. "The thing's melted back into the foulness which

bore it!" "The king is delirious," whispered a noble. Conan heard and

swore with barbaric oaths.



"By Badb, Morrigan, Macha and Nemain!" he concluded wrathfully. "I am

sane! It was like a cross between a Stygian mummy and a baboon. It

came through the door, and Ascalante's rogues fled before it. It slew

Ascalante, who was about to run me through. Then it came upon me and I

slew it--how I know not, for my ax glanced from it as from a rack. But

I think that the Sage Epemitreus had a hand in it--"



"Hark how he names Epemitreus, dead for fifteen hundred years!" they

whispered to each other.



"By Ymir!" thundered the king. "This night I talked with Epemitreus!

He called to me in my dreams, and I walked down a black stone corridor

carved with old gods, to a stone stair on the steps of which were the

outlines of Set, until I came to a crypt, and a tomb with a phœnix

carved on it--"



"In Mitra's name, lord king, be silent!" It was the high-priest of

Mitra who cried out, and his countenance was ashen.



Conan threw up his head like a lion tossing back its mane, and his

voice was thick with the growl of the angry lion.



"Am I a slave, to shut my mouth at your command?"



"Nay, nay, my lord!" The high-priest was trembling, but not through

fear of the royal wrath. "I meant no offense."  He bent his head close

to the king and spoke in a whisper that carried only to Conan's ears.



"My lord, this is a matter beyond human understanding. Only the inner

circle of the priestcraft know of the black stone corridor carved in

the black heart of Mount Golamira, by unknown hands, or of the

phœnix-guarded tomb where Epemitreus was laid to rest fifteen hundred

years ago. And since that time no living man has entered it, for his

chosen priests, after placing the Sage in the crypt, blocked up the

outer entrance of the corridor so that no man could find it, and today

not even the high-priests know where it is. Only by word of mouth,

handed down by the high-priests to the chosen few, and jealously

guarded, does the inner circle of Mitra's acolytes know of the

resting-place of Epemitreus in the black heart of Golamira. It is one

of the Mysteries, on which Mitra's cult stands."



"I can not say by what magic Epemitreus brought me to him," answered

Conan. "But I talked with him, and he made a mark on my sword. Why

that mark made it deadly to demons, or what magic lay behind the mark,

I know not; but though the blade broke on Gromel's helmet, yet the

fragment was long enough to kill the horror."



"Let me see your sword," whispered the high-priest from a throat gone

suddenly dry.



Conan held out the broken weapon and the high-priest cried out and

fell to his knees.



"Mitra guard us against the powers of darkness!" he gasped. "The king

has indeed talked with Epemitreus this night! There on the sword--it

is the secret sign none might make but him--the emblem of the immortal

phœnix which broods for ever over his tomb! A candle, quick! Look

again at the spot where the king said the goblin died!"



It lay in the shade of a broken screen. They threw the screen aside

and bathed the floor in a flood of candle-light. And a shuddering

silence fell over the people as they looked. Then some fell on their

knees calling on Mitra, and some fled screaming from the chamber.



There on the floor where the monster had died, there lay, like a

tangible shadow, a broad dark stain that could not be washed out; the

thing had left its outline clearly etched in its blood, and that

outline was of no being of a sane and normal world. Grim and horrific

it brooded there, like the shadow cast by one of the apish gods that

squat on the shadowy altars of dim temples in the dark land of Stygia.







THE END